Friday, September 30, 2005

Great Moments in Walker Percy: from Lost in the Cosmos p.195

Scene: A Washington hotel room. It is wartime. Enter Dr. F___, a Nobel Laureate scientist. Taking off his jacket, he sits on the bed wearily, rubs his temples, lies down, and closes his eyes. After a while, he turns on the television. The show is a closed circuit screening of Behind the Green Door, a pornographic film. Presently he masturbates, almost casually, but not before taking the trouble to fetch a special container from his suitcase to catch the ejaculate.

He switches off the television, lies down, closes his eyes.

The telephone rings. With a frown and a curious groan – is it weariness? irritation? anger? – he picks up the receiver. After a moment he hooks up a device, a scrambler to the phone. We hear only his side of the conversation.

Yes, General.

Yes, it was a very long meeting.

I realize that a decision wasn’t reached.

I know it’s important, General.

True, there was no closure in the decision-making process.

Yes, I realize it was a tie vote.

That’s correct – I didn’t express an opinion to the Chiefs.

Yes, that’s true. I have some standing in thescientific community.

Well, thank you, General. It’s nice to know you people respect one scientist.

That’s right, General. It’s no breach of security to call it by name. The eyes-only folder you have – and the only secret is its composition and mode of delivery. It’s a neurotoxin, airborne and water soluble. They’re working on it, too.

For one weapon? Ten million more or less, depending on population density.

Right. It violates no first strike agreement or Salt III. It’s a weapon, but not an explosive device.

I know that’s a high civilian casualty factor, but it will save lives in the end.

A demonstration? A demonstration of what? How to kill a few hundred reindeer in Siberia? No way, General.

Okay, I’m going to surprise you. I’m going to give you an opinion. I think we got to with it. For the ultimate good of mankind. Indeed, in the interests of peace. In fact, why don’t we call it Project Peace?

You like that? Yes, that’s right. Go. You can tell them.

I say go.

After hanging up, he picks up the cylindrical double-walled container, carefully pastes on a sticker containing the address of a California laboratory which collect the sperm of Nobel Laureates for the purpose of inseminating thousands of genetically screened women. Still holding the container, he opens the door, walks rapidly down the corridor to the ice machine.

Question: Do you thing the U.S. gene pool and the future quality of life will be improved by the contribgution of Dr. F___’s ejaculate?

( ) Yes
( ) No

Wednesday, September 28, 2005

John Williams' Augustus

To give some idea of how backlogged I am on book recommendations, I'm reading this at the suggestion made by a professor of mine twelve years ago. Saw it at Powell's and grabbed it while the grabbing was good. It won the National Book Award in 1973, and it seems to me very deserving. It concerns, obviously enough, Augustus, the first emperor of Rome, and is composed as a kind of chronological collage with letters, diaries, memoirs, field notes and the like - even Cicero's letters are fictional, though we have a substantial portion of his prodigious output. Williams does a fine job of affecting the tone of his various scribblers and presents us with an age that gives the graphomania of our own time a run for its money. Here is a letter from Marcus Antonius to a military commander, in which his first impressions of Octavian (later Augustus) are described:
I shall never understand how the "great" Caesar could have made this boy the inheritor of his name, his power, and his fortune. i swear to the gods, if the will hadn't first been received and recorded in the Temple of the Vestal Virgins, I would have taken a chance on altering it myself.

I don't think I wold have been so annoyed if he had left his airs in the reception room and had come into my office like anybody else. But he didn't. he came in flanked by his three friends, whom he presented to me as if I gave a damn about any of them. he addressed with the proper amount o fcivility, and then waited for me to say something. I looked at him for a long time and didn't speak. I'll say this for hime: he's a cool one. He didn't break and didn't say anything, and I couldn't even tell whether or not he was angry at having been made to wait. So finally I said:

"Well? What do you want?"

And even then he didn't blink. He said: "I have come to pay my respects to you, who were my father's friend, and to inquire about the steps that may be taken to settle his will. "Your uncle," I said. "I would also advise you not to use his name quite so freely, as if it were your own. It's not your own, as you well know, and it won't be until the adoption is confirmed by the Senate."

He nodded. "I am grateful fo rthe advice. I use the name as a sign of my reverence, not my ambition. But leaving the question of my name aside, and even my share of the inheritence, there is the matter of the bequest that Caesar made to the citizens. I judge that their temper is such that-"

I laughed at him. "Boy," I said, "this is the last bit of advice I'll give you this morning. Why don't you go back to Apollonia and read your books? It's much safer there. I'll take care of your uncle's affairs in my own way and in my own time."

You can't insult the fellow. He smiled that cold little smile at me and said, "I am pleased to know that my uncle's affairs are in such hands."

I got up from my table and patted him on the shoulder. "That's the boy," I said. "Now you fellows had better get running. Ihave a busy afternoon ahead of me." (36)

Perhaps it's even a tad overdone, but Antony's swaggering overconfidence is mixed with enough surprise to give us a colorful version of what must indeed have been a rise to power as unforseen as it was astonishing. The portrait of the young Octavian throughout strikes me as a pretty good guess at how the young leader could inspire such confidence and devotion, despite (maybe because of) his single-minded ruthlessness.

Saturday, September 17, 2005

Ken Kesey

Ken Kesey was born on September 17, 1935. I've greatly admired Cukoo's Nest for years, and recently came across these sentences from his second novel

"...there is always a sanctuary more, a door that can never be forced whatever the force; a last inviolable stronghold that cannot be taken, whatever the attack. Your vote can be taken, your name, your innards, even your life. But that last stronghold can only be surrendered--and to surrender it for any reason other than love is to surrender love..."

~ Sometimes A Great Notion

Here's some more food for thought (I'm not sure where this is from, having pulled it off the website linked above):

"The answer is never the answer. What's really interesting is the mystery. If you seek the mystery instead of the answer, you'll always be seeking. I've never seen anybody really find the answer -- they think they have, so they stop thinking. But the job is to seek mystery, evoke mystery, plant a garden in which strange plants grow and mysteries bloom. The need for mystery is greater than the need for an answer."

Friday, September 16, 2005

Quotidian Rerun (Karl Adam on Consciousness)

All this Kierkegaard (or perhaps my own fevered ravings on Kierkegaard) have brought me back to Karl Adam, whose musings I excerpted in the Spring. It's kind of relevant. Actually, Karl Adam is always relevant.

Letter X No. 4

The latest issue of this relatively new literary magazine just came out. I guess they have an online version as well. A friend of mine (or an aquaintence, actually) ... okay, some guy I met at a party was handing out free hard copies to anybody who'd take one. He was pretty well gone, I think. A few too many Bushmills, I figured, the bottle in his free hand being a pretty good indication. Anyway, he has a poem called 'Under the Overpass' in there. Which I have to say I don't really get. Why is a freeway like heaven? And you can't really 'breathe' gas, can you? You could gargle it, I suppose, but how would that happen? I myself once got some gas in my mouth while siphoning gas out of some guy's pickup at a National Park when I was on empty. Anyway, the picture is pretty cool; I'll give him that. You can read it for yourself here, if you're so inclined.

Okay, I've read it again and 'random car parts' is pretty good. As is the whole river metaphor. So good job, Jeb.

Thursday, September 15, 2005

KSRK Roundup

Thanks to Jonathan for providing the summary at the link provided above. And I will try, try, try to do a more thorough reading of Quidam's Diary. There's a 'Q' in there, after all.

Random tangent on reflection

All this reflection on Kierkegaard and reflection has me up nights, wondering what it actually means. What does it mean in relation to consciousness in general? There remains much to discover about the connection between the physical process of reflection and the mental process of reflection that is characteristic of human thought. Of course it isn’t exclusively human: in an experiment conducted in 1970 Gordon Gallup showed that chimpanzees recognize themselves in mirrors, and more recently the scientists Diana Reiss and Lori Marino have shown that bottlenose dolphins also have this capability. By studying the development of reflective consciousness and the cognitive abilities of animals we may be able to learn how this capability evolved in earlier stages of our own history. We hope to discover more about ourselves, not just in the earliest stages of our history, but in the way we live our lives now.

Of course the word ‘reflection’ takes on somewhat different meaning when considered as an attribute of either mental or physical processes. The reproduction of visual phenomena in a mirror (or something functioning as a mirror, like a body of water) would seem to be a less complicated process than what happens when our minds (and those of chimpanzees and bottlenose dolphins) go to work. But what is really meant by ‘reflective’ thought? Thinking about thinking? Is it any different than other kinds of thought? Since speech is also considered a marker for the threshold of higher intelligence, is mental reflection somehow connected to the development of language? In fact, for the most part thought really doesn’t seem very reflective at all; it seems to me that a better analogy for cognition is construction. Of course there still remains thinking about thinking and the ability of people to think about themselves, and this certainly does seem to have something in common with the physical process involving light and mirrors.

When were humans first able to see themselves as others? Maybe mirrors, in addition to allowing us to see ourselves, helped us understand that the relationship between an individual and his or her self is as infinitely distant as it is immediate. In addition to observing the process of reflection in nature, it might be worth inquiring into this process as it occurs in human history and culture. In the story of Adam and Eve in Genesis, their expulsion from the Garden of Eden occurs after they’ve eaten fruit from the tree of knowledge, and I wonder whether in the moment they saw themselves as naked there wasn’t also an insight that marked the beginning of reflective thought. Of course there aren’t any mirrors in the story and there certainly isn’t any mention of a specifically reflective knowledge, but how could they understand that they lacked clothes when clothes had never existed before? Could it mean that they recognized their lack of fur and even hair on their bodies? Or does ‘naked’ here have some meaning besides that of being clothed? How much does the fall of man have to do with the dawning of higher intelligence? According to the story, the trouble comes from the serpent, and though Adam and Eve are responsible for their fall it seems to me significant that it doesn’t originate in themselves. The way the world is these days, it now seems necessary to repeat (if only for myself) that the fall came from disobeying God, and in that they had a little help. It doesn’t come from thinking or talking. Adam and Eve were thinking before the fall (admittedly, Eve seems to do most of it after Adam took care of the naming), but thinking itself isn’t necessarily bad. Public discussion has been poisoned to such an extent that it’s hardly possible to disagree with someone’s opinion without having one’s motives questioned or character maligned. But I’m drifting away from the subject of mirrors and consciousness.

There are several Greek and Roman myths in which mirrors play an important part. The story of Narcissus, which we have from Ovid, is probably the most famous. It’s a fable driven by several ‘what if’ ideas: what if failed to see ourselves in our reflections, and what if we loved ourselves as others? And by ‘others’ we should probably understand not just ‘other than ourselves’ but ‘other than what we really are’, which is to say human beings capable of reflection and knowing ourselves as we know others. This story in which reflection is such an important factor is (with respect to cognition) really about the terrifying result of what might happen if someone did not have reflective consciousness. The young boy isn’t trapped by the infatuation of self with self, but by the infatuation of self with another whose identity he fails to recognize. In that sense our understanding of ‘narcissism’ has little to do with the character for whom it is named. This doesn’t necessarily invalidate the term, but along with our common understanding of the condition we should also understand that Narcissus’ sad end is the result of ignorance rather than excessive love for himself.

The mere appearance of Medusa, looked at directly, turned viewers to stone, and the hero Perseus was able to defeat her only by using the flat of his scimitar as a mirror. Making his approach by walking backwards and looking at her reflected image, he was able to determine her position and then cut off her head with that same scimitar. He then kept the head in a bag and pulled it out when he needed to turn his own enemies to stone. The safety in viewing Medusa’s reflection in the sword probably has something to do with the relatively imprecise reflective qualities of polished metal, but no reflection, however good, is really exact. The reversal of the gorgon’s image may also have played a part in Perseus’ protection, but in either case the mitigating power of reflection would seem to reside in the difference between the reflected image and the thing itself.

In the first letter of St. Paul to the Corinthians there is the famous verse, “For now we see through a glass, darkly; but then face to face: now I know in part; but then shall I know even as also I am known.” (King James Version). In the original Greek version the word for ‘glass’ is esoptrou, for which a more accurate translation is ‘mirror,’ since what St. Paul probably had in mind were the shiny steel mirrors commonly in use at the time. The phrase arti di esoptrou ‘through a glass’ (‘mirror’) isn’t quite the same as it was for Alice, of course, referring here perhaps to the simple fact that in looking at one’s reflection, it only seems to appear at a distance behind the glass equal to that in which the viewer stands in front of it. ‘Darkly’ is a translation of ainigmati, for which the more obvious translation is the cognate, enigmatically, which makes a great deal of sense as well. More prosaically, the word refers to the fact that steel mirrors didn’t reflect quite so well as mirrors do today. And of course the image was reversed, as was the gorgon’s image in Perseus’ scimitar, or in any other mirror. In his commentary on the letter, St. Thomas Aquinas takes a much more expansive view of the passage. He writes, ‘And so all creation is a mirror for us; because from the order and goodness and multitude which are caused in things by God, we come to a knowledge of His power, goodness and eminence. And this knowledge is called seeing in a mirror.’ This comes after his description of the knowledge God has for himself and the knowledge that angels have of Him. Humans are then a third order of being that understands God through his creation. ‘Creation is a mirror for us,’ through which we can come to know God, and since we are made in the image of God, we can come to know ourselves as well. Some day (‘then’) it will all be cleared up, and we will see ‘face to face’, which Aquinas tells us we should probably understand metaphorically. We will understand God as he really is. Of course it should go without saying that there has always been some confusion about God and who he really is. Some people have even confused themselves with God.

Just a few decades after Paul wrote his letter to the Corinthians, the Roman emperor Vespasian lay dying and is reported to have said, “Woe is me, I’m turning into a god.” He was showing a bit of gallows humor with what by then had become the custom of declaring emperors gods after their death, an official practice that required ratification by the Roman Senate. Both of Vespasian’s sons, Titus and Domitian, reigned after his death. Titus had been the general in charge of the sack of Jerusalem, and although he had a short reign himself, he was also declared a god. Domition wasn’t so lucky. He ruled Rome from 81 to 96 AD, often with great cruelty, and the historian Suetonius reports that he had mirrors installed on the palace walls because he feared enemies in his own court so much that he that he was worried about being taken by surprise in his own home. He was in fact assassinated, which means that his paranoia was an inadequate line of defense, and after his death the senate, rather than declaring him divine, declared him damnatio memoriae, literally, obviously, ‘damnation of memory’. Other than a possible connection between cruelty and paranoia there isn’t much in the episode relevant to our understanding of mirrors and cognition, but it’s also a good story.

Although they didn’t do much good for Domitian, mirrors have been extremely important in the advancement of technology. In 1704, Sir Isaac Newton used mirrors for the first time to greatly expand the power of the telescope, and though astronomers have long since moved on to telescopes utilizing high frequency radio technology, it’s still true that these new devices are based on the concept of reflection. Recently researchers at MIT have developed a new kind of mirror, a so-called ‘perfect’ mirror, which combines the best features of both metallic (traditional) and dielectric (nonconductive) mirrors to reflect light with virtually no loss of energy. Moreover, this reflective technology can be designed with alternating layers of a plastic and tellurium (a metal) to create a flexible material, usable in lightweight composite form, even fabric, and therefore practicable in any number of applications: weapons, electronics, clothes, as well as combinations thereof. All this is exciting, but it’s also a little frightening.

Many customs have developed around mirrors, some of them to deal with fears that run from the core to the very edge of our being. On an occasion of death, there is a Jewish custom that all the mirrors in the house are covered so that mourners look to each other rather than themselves for sympathy. Shiva isn’t a time for vanity either; it is rather a period of mourning and as such a time for introspection. Mirrors (perhaps somewhat paradoxically) have been found to interfere with this.

On the other end of the ontological spectrum, the time an actor spends in front of a mirror before going out to perform is for some a ritualized moment as they begin mentally transforming themselves from the persons they understand themselves to be into the characters they intend to bring to life. Magicians use mirrors on stage in order to alter the audience’s perception of reality. Of course, quite apart from their utilization by scientists and performers, mirrors have long been thought to have strange powers and even magical properties, and some of this may well be due to the fact that they share the property of reflection with the human mind.

From the brothers Grimm by way of Walt Disney we have the story of Snow White, which of course includes the character of the evil witch, who when looking into her magic mirror would recite her secret request: “Mirror, mirror, on the wall / who is the fairest of them all?” While the mirror in the story of Narcissus signified an imprisoned mind of limited cognitive ability, the witch’s mirror marks an expanded consciousness in which the glass becomes a kind of magic window or video screen that shows Snow White instead of herself. The combination of her chant (a kind of linguistic formula, really) with the mirror gives her the power to see more in the mirror than what would seem ordinarily possible. This striving to go beyond what is ordinarily possible is also one of the many charming aspects of Lewis Carroll’s Through the Looking Glass. The idea that there is another world on the other side of a mirror is every bit as enticing as it appears so obviously false. Of course it doesn’t seem possible to go through a mirror to an entirely different world, and yet we do it every day. We are in fact doing so right now.

Whether language is the result of reflective consciousness or its cause or something else entirely, the things of the world were first reflected in words and then recreated with words towards whatever ends we saw fit. Adam began naming things around him. To this very day we continue what he started, and the result is this recreation we inhabit every bit as much as the world as it was originally given to us. Maybe more. This is especially true in any dimension of our lives involving the use of words. It’s true when you read the newspaper. Even more so if you’re trying to write something yourself; writers have been known to juggle words in their heads for hours at a time. It’s true when you go to therapy, and for pretty much the same reasons that it’s true for writer. As you talk to your counselor you almost completely ignore the objects in the room in order to more fully inhabit the world you are creating for her with words. It is perhaps less true for my bartender, aware as she must be of the drinks she is pouring and the counter she’s cleaning, although it’s certainly the world of words she focuses on in jokes and conversation. Even a laborer or a craftsman working in silence is likely to be working with the results of words. As my contractor friend pounds nails into 2” x 4”s on the construction site he is working with things, but they are things every bit as much the products of a linguistically differentiated consciousness as they are the products of trees and metallic minerals.

All of which helpful in understanding a world forged by a consciousness that is to a greater or lesser degree mediated by language, and that this mediation will always give rise to a certain amount of tension. A woody thing growing out of the ground is not itself the word ‘tree’, but on the other hand we are able to do with it what we want because we have named it, and there isn’t any way of avoiding the fact that trees and their wood have become part of the structure we acknowledge as reality. There isn’t very much tension here, but what if we consider instead an object in space, whose gravity we can detect but which is otherwise invisible? Is there the same amount of tension, once it has been called a black hole? What about the most recently calculated last digit in pi? That might seem real enough, but what about that one after that, as yet uncalculated? Is that real? What about the ‘slithy toves’ in Lewis Carroll’s Jabberwocky? Are they real? If not, then how can we talk about them? If yes, is there therefore more or less tension because they lack correspondence with the world, as we commonly understand it? What about Adam and Eve? Perseus? Domitian? Jacob Grimm and Lewis and Alice and my bartender, how can we measure their reality?

Wednesday, September 14, 2005

Ogden Nash on the Thrips Infesting My Plant

On my desk I keep a flower
by which I while away an hour
searching for thrips
(a kind of bug underneath
the leaf, with tiny, tiny teeth),
delivering death with my fingertips.

Tuesday, September 13, 2005

A Story of Floating Weeds

It's hard to overemphasize just how good this 1934 silent Japanese movie is. Directed by Yasunori Ozu, the simple story involves the reunion of a traveling stage performer with his lover when he returns to her town after a long absence. Given the climate surrounding most movies these day, I can appreciate how some people may find it slow-moving or even boring, but it really does bear up to repeated viewings. I watched it a second time with the commentary on the same night. Donald Richie does a superlative job, so much so that I transcribed some of his more memorable remarks. The range of his commentary really is incredible.

Here he is on the Japanese language:
“There is a term in Japanese, nakama, which means doing things in a group, and that is indeed a goal, and indeed it is virtuous to behave in this fashion.”

“There’s a word, wa, which is the great circle of accord, which is certainly known in China, but which in Japan even now remains (at least it is given lip service) as the main social virtue; if you have wa - that is if you have an accord, a group of people who are in a single accord - then you have virtue, in the Confucian sense of the word.”

On Japanese culture:
“She responds by leaving her comb in her hair, which is a very well known gesture of courtesans (ladies who are no better than she should be), so it is as if she were thumbing her nose at him.”

On one of Ozu’s shortcomings:
“Ozu’s love scenes are particularly … are not very good, usually. He keeps away from them, but when he has to have them (in Early Spring, for example), they are noticeably, badly done; the actors are embarrassed for them, probably because the director is embarrassed for them.”

On an interesting detail, as part of Ozu’s technique:
“How many times in Ozu’s pictures do we have laundry on the line. Laundry on the line in this case leads to a conclusion that we might have thought of, but very often we don’t have any such thing at all. I don’t know which film has the most laundry to dry. Drying laundry has something to do with the story in Good Morning because the boys are always getting their underwear dirty, but in many another picture I think it was the sculptural quality, perhaps, or like those flags that Ozu was very fond of using as shots connecting one locale to another. The idea that we can move forward by showing a scene outside where we have been, then moving to a scene outside where we’re going, and then going inside of the place where we’re going to. It’s almost an invariable grammar in Ozu. He uses it from the earliest films on, and here again he is very carefully using it.”

More on Ozu’s technique:
“Ozu never liked enlarging technical capacities; just the opposite, he wanted to take away what we would consider cinematic effects. Dollies got rarer and rarer, panoramas became unheard of, fade-ins, fade-outs, dissolves - all of which he banished. He would say these are attributes of the camera; they are not attributes of cinema. So with that philosophy he really pared down, which gives Ozu his minimalist look.”

On style in general, using an 18th century French mathematician to comment on traditional Japanese aesthetics:
“When you’re searching for style in anything, you must remember what Buffon said, that style is the man himself, and you are your own style. Your style springs from you; style is nothing you put on afterwards like icing on the cake. Rather it is something integral to you; it is revealed to you by your choices, and when you make something then (when you’re an artist of any kind), what you choose to do is indicative of what you’ve already chosen within yourself.”

On Ozu and genre:
“Ozu never plugs anything for political or ideological reasons, and that is the reason he sits uneasily in genre. Because genre always plugs ideology, and since Ozu didn’t do it, it’s very difficult to be absolutely sure with him what the genre is, and to name it. Usually it’s this mixture of genres, which is one of the things that gives Ozu films their charm, and certainly their meaning.”

On the grand theme of Ozu’s career
“From this film on, if we hadn’t learned it before, we learn now that his true theme, the theme he was to illuminate all the rest of his career, was not the Japanese family but the dissolution of the Japanese family.”

Monday, September 12, 2005

Kafka to his sister, Ottla

I write differently from what I speak, I speak differently from what I think, I think differently from the way I ought to think, and so it all proceeds into deepest darkness.

Friday, September 09, 2005

Chrysanthemum Day

This is one of the five sacred festivals of ancient Japan. A wondrous display of chrysanthemum varieties was held on this day. Figures of trained chrysanthemums are displayed, chrysanthemum wine is drunk and, in Korea, on the ninth day of the Ninth Moon people in every house eat chrysanthemum cakes, a kind of dumpling made from mixing yellow chrysanthemum petals with rice and flour. Honey water, with mandarin oranges, pears, pomegranates, and pinenuts floating in it, is drunk. Many go to view the crimson maple leaves.

An interesting custom associated with this festival is that of putting cotton wool on the chrysanthemum flowers on the eve of the festival day. The next morning the cotton, now wet with either dew or frost, is removed and the body wiped with it. This is known as "cotton nursing of the chrysanthemum" and shows the desire both to protect the flowers and to use the dew of the early frosts to cure the ailments of mankind.

from "Japanese Festival and Calendar Lore" by William Hugh Erskine and "Folk Customs and Family Life" by Tae Hung Ha.

Thursday, September 08, 2005

Duel at Diablo

Watched this B western with my dad last night. James Garner plays Jess Remsberg, a scout who has recently lost his wife to scalping - rumor has it at the hands of a white man. Ellen Grange (Bibi Anderson) is trying to rejoin the Apache tribe that had once kidnapped her, to the understandable exasperation of her husband, played by Dennis Weaver. Bill Travers plays Lt. Scotty McAllister, trying to lead a convoy from Ft. Creel to Ft. Conchos, but must be on the lookout for Apache chief Chata (John Hoyt), who is also the father of Grange's Apache husband, recently killed in the rescue of Ellen Grange. Remsberg accompanies the convoy with the help of Toller (Sidney Poitier), and the ensuing action sequences are matched by such sterling dialogue as this:

Ellen Grange
You're going to kill me.
No. You will be alive when I bury you in the grave of my son.

Wednesday, September 07, 2005

Ogden Nash on the Election for the Seattle Port Commissioner

Every candidate
For Seattle’s new Port Commish
Seems a pretty eager fish.
What’s the bait?

Tuesday, September 06, 2005

Ogden Nash on the Policeman Ahead of Me in Line at the Top Pot

This cop likes his coffee at the Top Pot,
It's made by a bit of a fop, hot.
A gal with nose rings and tattoos
Serves him donuts,
and the poor man can't lose
Any weight while he woos,
but if she were his daughter he'd go nuts.

Monday, September 05, 2005

KSRC: Reflections on Marriage (continued)

Ooof! This is heavy-going. Not only is there much I fail to understand, but there are quite a few passages for which I’m not even sure how to frame a question. Sometimes I want to make an objection, and then very soon it is answered, maybe only partially, and it is then that I feel caught, trapped really, in a kind of web from which I’m not able to extricate myself. For example, near the beginning SK writes:
In paganism there was a god for love but none for marriage; in Christianity there is, if I may venture to say so, a God for marriage and none for love.
‘Well,’ I thinks to myself, ‘this is all wrong. Of course the ancients had a god for marriage; it was Hera (Juno for the Romans), and she was thought to preside over all wedding ceremonies. And as for love in Christianity, if by love SK means sex, one can refer to any number of passages used in wedding ceremonies that allow for sexual love, even the “man should leave his mother and father and cleave to his wife” directly from the lips of Christ himself. And then SK reverses himself in the next paragraph and writes, ‘there is something to tie to after all in the fact that Zeus and Hera had a special predicate as the guardians of marriage: τελειοs and τελεια.’ Well, so much for that. SK seems to have covered himself there, and if there’s any doubt, he gives us a sentence like this:
I do not hide my ignorance, and knowing for my own part that I lack the necessary erudition, I am not disposed to boast of a spiritual falcon-eye which would warrant me in heaping scorn upon classic learning and classic culture, which remains when all is said and done the pithy pabulum of the soul, far more nutritive green food or the speculator’s guess as to “what the age demands.” To me it is important only that I be allowed to apply these words τελειοs and τελεια to married people – Jupiter and Juno I leave out of account, not being inclined to make a fool of myself by wanting to solve the historico-philologic difficulty.

Alrighty then … glad we’ve got that cleared up. Then SK gets to the point.
Marriage I regard as the highest τελοs of the individual human existence, it is so much the highest that the man who goes without it cancels with one stroke the whole of earthly life and retains only eternity and spiritual interests – which at the first glance seems no slight thing but in the long run is very exhausting and also in one way or another is the expression of an unhappy life.
This strikes me as abstraction to the point of willful naivete. Surly SK had witnessed unhappy marriages, and assuming he had, did he just ignore them? Or did he hold that however unhappy they may have been in any concrete sense of the word, they were nevertheless ‘happy’ in an abstract sense? To such a degree that maybe they couldn’t even be aware of their unhappiness? This seems to me grossly unfair to anyone who finds him or herself in an unhappy marriage. Of course he is here remarking on the man who does not marry, but it seems to me he is being equally simplistic in condemning that man to unhappiness. Of course he is setting the ‘stage’, here, priming the reader for the extraordinary exception, the higher happiness that makes his earthly unhappiness half tragedy and half sacrifice, and already he strikes me as cruel, and all I can think about is Regine, poor Regine, you were lucky to get out when you did.

But SK must be getting at something here, because while I read I find myself growing in some kind of awareness, perhaps even experiencing a kind of shock of spiritual recognition. After all, haven’t we all engaged in such fantasies about the abstract nature of our potential lives? Isn’t that what SK is doing here: stating clearly the kind of validation we’ve hoped to be given for the daydreams we’ve entertained ourselves with from the time we were young? After all, the judge’s first essay was in fact called “The Aesthetic Validity of Marriage”, and isn’t this really more of the same?

I think that perhaps the satisfaction of reading SK comes from decoding what seems to be purposefully obtuse language. And frequently it is obtuse when he is writing about very different things, so that at one point he can be understood to be expressing something about what he calls ‘the spiritual’, while at another point he is understood to be writing about the erotic (what exactly does he mean by ‘immediacy’? wouldn’t we now just call it sexual arousel? No? What then?), and the resulting conflation of the two makes for a heady mix that sends the mind reeling.

This is tough going, but I'll try to pick up the pace. I really am out of my depth with this stuff. And I'm not just stating that to win through paradox. I really am ignorant here. Maybe I should study Danish.

Mmmm... danish...

Sunday, September 04, 2005

Ogden Nash on the new Seattle Public Library

The new Seattle Public Library
Has a lot of windows and is very
Airy. Too bad, that for all the books
And reading nooks,
The art exhibit is so scary.

Saturday, September 03, 2005

Printer's Error

Not quite in the same league as 'Good Gnus', but it's still Wodehouse. Just trying to keep something posted every day...
As o'er my latest book I pored,
Enjoying it immensely,
I suddenly exclaimed 'Good Lord!'
And gripped the volume tensely.
Golly!' I cried. I writhed in pain.
'They've done it on me once again!'
And furrows creased my brow.
I'd written (which I thought quite good)
'Ruth, ripening into womanhood,
Was now a girl who knocked men flat
And frequently got whistled at',
And some vile, careless, casual gook
Had spoiled the best thing in the book
By printing 'not'
(Yes,'not', great Scott!)
When I had written 'now'.

On murder in the first degree
The Law, I knew, is rigid:
Its attitude, if A kills B,
To A is always frigid.
It counts it not a trivial slip
If on behalf of authorship
You liquidate compositors.
This kind of conduct it abhors
And seldom will allow.
Nevertheless, I deemed it best
And in the public interest
To buy a gun, to oil it well,
Inserting what is called a shell,
And go and pot
With sudden shot
This printer who had printed 'not'
When I had written 'now'.

I tracked the bounder to his den
Through private information:
I said, 'Good afternoon', and then
Explained the situation:
'I'm not a fussy man,' I said.
'I smile when you put "rid" for "red"
And "bad" for "bed" and "hoad" for "head"
And "bolge" instead of "bough".
When "wone" appears in lieu of "wine"
Or if you alter "Cohn" to "Schine",
I never make a row.
I know how easy errors are.
But this time you have gone too far
By printing "not" when you knew what
I really wrote was "now".
Prepare,' I said, 'to meet your God
Or, as you'd say, your Goo or Bod,
Or possibly your Gow.'

A few weeks later into court
I came to stand my trial.
The Judge was quite a decent sort.
He said, 'Well, cocky, I'll
Be passing sentence in a jiff,
And so, my poor unhappy stiff,
If you have anything to say,
Now is the moment. Fire away.
You have?'
I said, 'And how!
Me lud, the facts I don't dispute.
I did, I own it freely, shoot
This printer through the collar stud.
What else could I have done, me lud?
He'd printed "not"...'
The judge said, 'What!
When you had written "now"?
God bless my soul! Gadzooks!' said he.
'The blighters did that once to me.
A dirty trick, I trow.
I hereby quash and override
The jury's verdict. Gosh!' he cried.
'Give me your hand. Yes, I insist,
You splendid fellow! Case dismissed.'
(Cheers, and a Voice 'Wow-wow!')

A statue stands against the sky,
Lifelike and rather pretty.
'Twas recently erected by
The P.E.N. committee.
And many a passer-by is stirred,
For on the plinth, if that's the word,
In golden letters you may read
'This is the man who did the deed.
His hand set to the plough,
He did not sheathe the sword, but got
A gun at great expense and shot
The human blot who'd printed "not"
When he had written "now".
He acted with no thought of self,
Not for advancement, not for pelf,
But just because it made him hot
To think the man had printed "not"
When he had written "now".'

~ P.G. Wodehouse

Friday, September 02, 2005

KSRC: Reflections on Marriage

Summer is passing quickly, though perhaps the current section of Stages does have more of an autumnal feel to it. It certainly aims at a greater maturity than that expressed by the Fashion Designer, although K’s purpose in this is probably worth some discussion as well. So the Korrektiv Summer Reading Club should convene again. I really can’t speak with authority on the subject of marriage, beyond standing around countless kitchens, ass against the counter with a drink in my hand, watching and listening for where it all went so right, or so wrong, whatever the case may be. ‘Without authority’; I think K would appreciate that. Though of course K was also (rather famously) unmarried, so perhaps I can speak with authority about an unmarried, ridiculously reflective, literary and music-loving dilettante who writes about marriage under the guise of a pseudonym. But probably not. In any event, here are a few brief notes:

The motto at the beginning is not auspicious, to say the least. “The deceived is wiser than the not-deceived” seems like a perfectly hellish way to begin a dissertation on marriage. It certainly seems a hellish way to begin a marriage.

The Introductory remarks run a little long, but he’s busy establishing his credibility on the subject. Sounds a little like the Fashion Designer, to be honest, and if this were a play instead of a philosophical work, I’d have to say that the author didn’t work hard enough at establishing character, for all the words he uses. I’ll still say it. The analogy with Hebrew vowels was a little hard to sort through, and if the motto at the beginning seemed an awful way to begin, with the anecdote about Jacob kissing Esau I think he’s managed to outdo himself. The final sentence is K at his Socratic best: “Every other objection is all the more welcome the more openly it is expressed, for a consistent objection is a feeler after the truth and comes very opportunely to one who has the explanation at his fingertips.” Perhaps we can manage a few - objections and explanations. More in a bit.

Thursday, September 01, 2005

from Politics by Adam Thirlwell

I recently read this first novel by the young British writer Adam Thirlwell. I thought it was a pretty good book. It's written in a fairly breezy style that allows for serious moments without being the least bit heavy-handed. It also has some of the most graphic writing about sex that I've read in quite some time, but that's not exactly why I'm interested in it. What interested me most were a couple of authorial asides about another author, Milan Kundera, including this:
My mother's Czech friend, Petra, disliked Milan Kundera. She thought he should not have left his country. She thought that he was selfish.

I own a weird French edition of Milan Kundera's second novel Farewell Waltz. This edition was published in 1979. It has a fake-red cover, with a fake gold embossed pattern printed on it. As an introduction, there is an interview with Milan Kundera. I am going to quote you one sentence from this interview. 'No one can suspect what it cost me to leave my country: my hair turned grey,' said Milan.

I think we should remember some dates here. Kundera was born in 1929. When he left Czechoslovakia in 1975 he was, therefore, forty-six. That is quite an old age to leave your country. And he left only after seven years of living, under surveillance, in the forest near Brno, unpublished and isolated. Seven years is a long time to stay somewhere in isolation.

I do not think people are very intelligent about selfishness. I do not think they see how moral it can be. Because it is moral, refusing to be self-destructive. It is a perfectly moral position.

Of course this doesn't make as much sense, ripped from the novel as it is here, without the characters and incidents which this passage does so much to illuminate. So you should read the book. Although digressions such as this one - in true, Kundera-like, Diderot-like, Sterne-like fashion - are some of the best parts of the novel.

But what about this? Is Thirlwell on to something here? It seems to me that he is, although I'm not sure how well this can be squared with what I understand about our inherited Christian morality, within which (as I understand it) one can only do more when it comes to becoming unselfish. And then do more. I'm not being sly here; this is the only morality I'm invested in. Selfishness is practically a given, after all. Can it also be good? The lesser evil? I suppose so, but I also think the intersection between selfishness and self-preservation isn't one we frequent all that often, and the choice not often very confusing.